Hidden in a pine forest high on a sandstone plateau, the brooding Bibémus Quarries are a majestic location and Paul Cézanne mined them for inspiration at the peak of his career.
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The tall, angular, oddly sculpted rocks rear steeply up out of the undergrowth, the perfect subject for an artist famously obsessed with essential shapes: spheres, cones, cylinders and cubes. And the colours - amber sandstone, green pines, blue sky - were just right for his palette.
You wouldn't expect it as you drive up to the quarries past the expensive suburban villas lining the chemin de Bibémus. But, just to the east of this city which has relentlessly commercialised Cézanne, these 7 hectares / 17 acres impress you as a primitive, lonely, once-industrial landscape that nature has long since reclaimed as its own.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
Bibémus has supplied sandstone since Roman times. The name is Latin for "We shall drink". It's uncertain whether this refers to the highly porous stone, or to the equally thirsty miners harvesting it.
The sandstone was quarried not by machines, but by hand. This had two effects. No large rigs or buildings were constructed (and thus left behind). And the stones themselves were chipped away from the bottom, leaving them in singular, "top-heavy" shapes, pictured.
In the 17th and 18th centuries the quarries assumed an immense importance as Aix expanded. You'll see that sandstone everywhere in the city, notably in the elegant houses of the Mazarin Quarter.
But it was of poor quality and when another source, in Rognes, became available, the quarry was closed in 1885.
By the time Cézanne started painting the quarries in 1895, the landscape was already reverting to its primaeval state.
The German-American art historian John Rewald, who painstakingly chronicled Cézanne's career, has described it vividly in these words.
"It is a vast field of seemingly accidental forms as if some prehistoric giant, constructing a fantastic playground, had piled up cubes and dug holes and then abandoned them without leaving a hint of his intricate plan.
"And nature has since spread a carpet of plants over the turrets, the square blocks, the sharp edges, the clefts, the caves, the tunnels and arches, thus reclaiming the site that had been wrested from her."
THE GUIDED TOUR
Like the Jas de Bouffan - one of the other main Cézanne sights in Aix - the quarries have been only open to the public since 2006. They remain in a wild state, and intentionally so. The plan is to make minimal changes and to preserve the site as a sort of archeological dig.
All visitors must take the guided tour for safety reasons. If you want to explore this general area independently, there are a further 40 hectares / 99 acres of land around the quarries to ramble through on your own.
Even more so than at the Jas de Bouffan, Cézanne was entering a period of increasing abstraction which presaged Cubism by the time he started working here.
So a direct link between the landscapes and specific paintings is not always evident, though Rewald has done tremendous work in this respect.
Moreover, as can be seen by comparing the photograph below of the Mont Sainte Victoire with Cézanne's painting of it, the artist frequently freely and creatively reinvented the geography of the place.
Still, the tour does take you to certain vantage points from which Cézanne painted identifiable works, and small enamel plaques in the ground reproduce his images.
It passes by the little shelter, or cabanon, pictured above, which he rented in order to store his equipment and which is still in good condition.
You also go past another dwelling which, when we visited in 2011, was occupied by a Canadian sculptor named David Campbell who had the right to live in the quarries and whose own works could be seen outside his house.
While we had the distinct impression that the City of Aix would prefer him to leave, others may take pleasure in the idea of a living artist continuing to be fired by this extraordinary place.
The tour climaxes at a look-out point offering panoramic views across the valley with the Mont Sante Victoire, pictured, soaring above it.
Below you, though largely concealed by vegetation, is the Château Noir, the estate where Cézanne also painted and which was the subject of some of his most haunting works from this period.
The three essential Cézanne sites in Aix are the Jas de Bouffan, the Bibémus Quarries and the studio at Les Lauves (which is by a very long way the most popular attraction with tourists). They should be seen in this sequence if you want to experience them in the order they assumed in the artist's own life. Website for the Cézanne sites in Aix en Provence
In summer, it's possible to visit all three sights on the same day. But outside the main tourist season, when the opening hours are more restricted, you would probably need to allow three half days in order to see them all, as they are located on different sides of the city. The Bibémus tour lasts about one hour.
Check the website or Tourist Office for the opening times, which vary according to the season (it's open all year round). There is usually a tour in English.
In high summer, the quarries may be closed, depending on weather conditions and the risk of forest fires. You can check on the website for the Préfecture Bouches du Rhône; however it's in French only. The Tourist Office should also have the information.
In any case, it's recommended for individuals and compulsory for groups to reserve in advance at the Tourist Office, Les Allées provençales, 300 avenue Giuseppe Verdi, Aix en Provence. Tel: (+33) 4 42 16 11 61.
Pictured: Mont Sante Victoire seen from the Bibémus Quarries by Paul Cézanne, 1897. Baltimore Museum of Art.
As the Tourist Office brochure warns, the walk is not suitable for people with reduced mobility. It is not far, fast-paced or ultra-demanding, but does include steps and small climbs. Wear flat shoes.
If you would like to venture further afield in Cézanne's footsteps, click here to read our guide to a drive or ride along the route Cézanne around the Mont Sainte Victoire, which includes the Bibémus Quarries.
And if time is tight and you can't manage any of these three guided sites, you can get a taste of Cézanne by taking a self-guided walking tour of the places in central Aix that marked the artist's life.
Where: Carrières de Bibémus, 3090 chemin de Bibémus, 13100 Aix en Provence. Tel: (+33) 4 16 11 61.
Take the bus or drive along the D10 east out of Aix in the direction of Vauvenargues. The chemin de Bibémus turns off near the Parking des Trois Bons Dieux and the quarries are about four kilometres / two and a half miles along it.
If the walk up this hill does not appeal (as well it might not in the middle of summer), there is a shuttle bus. Do not attempt to go all the way by car. The quarries are poorly sign-posted and there is virtually no car-parking space at the top of the hill.
Find further reading on Amazon:
On Site with P. Cézanne in Provence Published by the Paul Cézanne society, this superbly illustrated book is essential for anyone seriously following the master's trail, and a beautiful souvenir if you're visiting the sites. Art experts discuss Cézanne's work in L'Estaque, Bibémus, the Jas de Bouffon and the Lauves studio, analysing the paintings and comparing them with photographs of the locations.
Cézanne: A Biography The German-American art historian John Rewald is regarded as a leading expert on Cézanne - he is even buried next to his mentor in Aix en Provence. His authoritative biography includes letters, photographs and a catalogue raisonné.
Cézanne: A Life is the first major new biography of the artist for many decades. The author, Alex Danchev, is not a traditional art historian and comes at his subject from an unusual angle. His biography has received rave reviews in The Sunday Times, The Spectator and elsewhere as a revealing and sympathetic portrait of a man always previously been regarded as prickly, physically awkward and aloof.